Whether you think of him as the world's greatest anime director, one of the greatest animators of all time, or perhaps one of the best directors period, the works of Hayao Miyazaki are beyond compare… except perhaps to each other. Here's the best of his best.
11) Nausicaa, Nausicaa of the Valley of Wind
The star of Miyazaki's first masterpiece, Nausicaa is the sum of all of Miyazaki's loves — the environment, peace, feminism, and flight. While he would explore all of these subjects in more depth later, if there's one film that could serve as his mission statement, it's Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, best represented by its title characters. Nausicaa isn't exactly complex, but she's a savior for the ravaged, post-apocalyptic world of the movie, so she doesn't really have to be. Still, watching her trying to stop a war, thwart a giant weapon of mass destruction, and bring peace between humanity and the natural world that has reclaimed the planet has made her an essential part of the Miyazaki canon.
Ponyo is insane. I imagine if you gave a four-year-old magic mushrooms, he/she may come up with someone almost as weird as the tiny fish-girl originally named Brunhilde, who escapes to surface world, meets a friend, and accidentally creates a massive tsunami by trying to turn herself human. I'm not sure if Ponyo truly grows or even learns any lessons over the course of the movie, but she's so individual, so unlike Miyazaki's other characters, and somehow so perfectly entertaining she has to be counted among his greatest creations.
9) Lupin the Third, Castle of Cagliostro
To be perfectly honest, Hayao Miyazaki didn't create the international thief Lupin the Third; that was the original manga author named Monkey Punch. But when Lupin was first conceived, he was like James Bond gone bad — ready to kill to pull his heists and even readier to womanize, just mixed with a plethora of Mad Magazine-style slapstick. But when Miyazaki took charge of the character for the TV anime series — followed by the Lupin movie Castle of Cagliostro — he turned Lupin into more of a gentleman-thief, and his character's popularity skyrocketed. In Miyazaki's hands, especially, Lupin is still a trickster but one with a code of honor, and one who'll always save a damsel-in-distress even if he still does act a bit pervy sometimes. Lupin may not be Miyazaki's original character, but he's benefited from how Miyazaki transformed him for nearly 40 years.
8) The Laputa Robots, Castle in the Sky
They don't speak, they don't move much, and they're honestly not in the film for that long. And yet the lanky, silent robots of Miyazaki's adventure fantasy Castle in the Sky (a.k.a. Laputa) are captivating because of their enigmatic silence. They're striking and somber and amazing all at once, a masterpiece of design and minimal animation — not unlike The Iron Giant, who bears more than a passing resemblance to these guys. Whenever anyone thinks about Castle in the Sky, chances are they will remember the Laputa robots long before they think of the movie's two young human leads. While never reaching the popularity of Totoro, these beloved 'bots are some of Miyazaki's most iconic creations, spawning merchandise in Japan for over 30 years.
7) San, Princess Mononoke
What would happen if Nausicaa wasn't a harbinger of peace, but a warrior? Then she'd be Mononoke's titular star, a young girl raised by the creatures of the forest and determined to prevent the nearby humans from killing any more of her people or destroying their land. What San lacks in moral complexity she more than makes up for by being a brutal counterpart to Nausicaa — although human, she's as savage as the world she protects. It helps that she's a fierce, brutal fighter, beautifully animated by Miyazaki at the very top of his game. But what makes her so striking us that even as she falls in love with the (human) protagonist Ashitaka, she never abandons her family or her ideals — while most films would soften San and have her rejoin her fellow humans, San never abandons the forest or the animals that raised her. There's nothing traditional about San, and that's what makes her so fascinating.
6) Jiro Horikoshi, The Wind Rises
Miyazaki has only done one biography — that of Jiro Horikoshi, the designer of what would be known as the terrifying Japanese Zero fighters of World War II. I don't know how accurate The Wind Rises is in chronicling Horikoshi's life, but I do know the character on screen is incredibly compelling, a man whose poor eyesight destroys his dream of being a pilot, who follows his passion for aviation into engineering, only to see that passion (and his talents) used for death and destruction. Miyazaki somehow gets across Jiro's pride in accomplishing his dream of building a great plane with his horror at their use, making him one of animation's most complex, tragic figures.
5) No-Face, Spirited Away
It's almost impossible to describe No-Face. Is he a monster? Sometimes. Is he the antagonist of Spirited Away? Not really. Is he scary? Pretty frequently. But this is intentional, as No-Face transforms to meet the needs — or vices — of those he surrounds, so when the spirit world's bathhouse attendants go mad with greed, he turns into a hungry beast, determined to consume everything. But alone he's just a quiet, masked creature looking for a connection, one he finds in Sen later in the movie. Very, very few of Miyazaki's characters reach this level of complexity, and it's one of the reasons why Spirited Away is his most acclaimed movie.
4) Lady Eboshi, Princess Mononoke
The villainess of Princess Mononoke over the princess herself? Yes, because Lady Eboshi is that rarest of antagonists… one who isn't evil at all. Sure, the environmental themes of Miyazaki's work — Nausicaa in particular — primed us to pick nature's side as humans destroy the environment for one selfish reason after another. But Eboshi brings a sophistication to the argument by being focused solely on protecting and benefiting her village and its people, which means cutting down the forest for both walls and resources, and sometimes attacking the creatures of the forest before they attack her. It's a war of survival on both sides, and Eboshi's lack of greed and her abundance of selflessness prove that this conflict isn't always a black-and-white issue, although it may be inevitable. Either way, Eboshi is as much of a hero as San is, but one much more unique in Miyazaki's oeuvre.
3) Sen/Chihiro, Spirited Away
Most of Miyazaki's work is about and for kids, and sometimes his heroines and heroes share so much DNA that their unity makes it hard to distinguish among them. But what Miyazaki did in Nausicaa, Castle in the Sky, Kiki's Delivery Service and the rest he perfected with Sen, a.k.a. Chihiro, in Spirited Away. Sen starts as a sullen child, pouting because her family is moving to a new home (with a new school). But a detour into a bizarre, abandoned festival ends up with her parents turning into pigs, and she's forced to not only find work in a bizarre, somewhat dangerous spirit realm, but take care of herself and save her family, too. Even more than Miyazaki's other heroines, Sen actually grows up during Spirited Away; by starting lower, so to speak, her journey to maturity and independence is both more authentic and infinitely more powerful.
2) Porco Rosso
As I said above, Miyazaki has dozens of young heroes and heroines, but there is only one Porco Rosso. An Italian fighter pilot who was so embittered at the senseless violence of World War I, he renounced his humanity and turned into a pig, Porco is Miyazaki's only completely adult main character, and that makes him utterly unique. Like Kurt Vonnegut and Miyazaki himself, Porco is a pessimist who desperately wants to be an optimist, but keeps getting let down by the world. Of course, Porco Rosso isn't a tragedy, but an action-comedy, and not only does he begrudgingly have his heart opened up by a spunky young mechanic named Fio — and his joy of flying, a passion Miyazaki shares — the film implies there's peace for him at the end. But with a doomed romance behind him and World War II ahead, Porco Rosso is emblematic of the tragedy that awaits when the children of Miyazaki's other movies grow up.
1) Totoro, My Neighbor Totoro
If you create a character that become so popular and beloved that it becomes the de facto mascot for your entire company — in fact, that you decide to actually use it as your company mascot because it's so inextricably entwined with your entire body of work — well, then chances are you've created something perfect. And that's what Totoro is — a fuzzy blue creature that is kind of mysterious, a tiny bit scary, but entirely adorable, one who is the perfect embodiment of a child's sense of wonder. Even if there's a day where Miyazaki and his movies are forgotten, there's no doubt in my mind that Totoro will live on to delight kids forever.